The Privacy Lawyer: Cyberloafing's Drain On Productivity

Some studies estimate that companies lose up to $50 billion annually in wasted employee time and resources online. To address the problem, <B>Parry Aftab</B> says, you need to know what your employees are doing and how much time they spend doing it.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

November 6, 2003

6 Min Read

The latest joke or freaky animal picture moves across the Internet at the speed of sound (or broadband), and you forward it along to a few others, and so on and so forth. Luckily, the work E-mail is much faster than the access at home. Besides, who can get to the home computer with the kids and teens hogging it all night and day?

Whoops ... here comes the boss. Quick! Minimize the screen! Phew! That was close. Now back to [fill in the blank with whatever fad site or online community calls your name]. Do you hear it? "Parry," it calls, "your Neopet needs to be fed." "Check the lineup for your fantasy football team," "What is your account balance? Did you pay the Visa bill this month?" "Have you checked your horoscope to see if you'll be having a good day?" "Hmmm, that cruise you always wanted to go on may be on sale at" "That motorcycle auction on eBay closes today." "Maybe your soul mate finally saw your profile on" "Your Friendster private circle calls." It's hard to focus on work when our personal lives beckon so frequently and can be addressed via the Internet so easily.

Never before have employees been so excited to get to work and focus all of their attention on their computer screens. But what passes for enthusiasm in the workplace is often an enormous waste of an employer's money. Some studies estimate that employers are losing up to $50 billion annually in wasted employee time and resources online. Others believe that number is seriously understated.

Management experts have estimated that only about 67% of any employee's workday is actually productive (without factoring in personal use of the Internet). The typical productivity losses range from coffee breaks to downtime while changing tasks to lack of organization. But with the advent of music downloading, online shopping, auction sites, and fantasy sports, that percentage is reduced quickly and radically.

Instant messaging, always on, carries messages from others also wasting time at work. Communications that never would have been made during the workday, given the ease and instantaneous gratification of a reply, are made all day long.

The sites that eat up productivity at work include eBay (you name it, you can find it on eBay), travel sites (where employees can plan their vacations, usually at a discount), E-commerce sites over the holidays, car-shopping and price-comparison sites, pornography, fantasy sports, horoscopes, banking, investment and stock-watch sites, cyberdating services, and, to rub salt in the employer's wound, job-hunting sites. Some of the newest rages online catch on first in the workplace. It's a matter of faster access and fewer interruptions than at home. And where downloading full-length movies and lots of music files are concerned, endless storage capacity on the network's servers.

So how is an employer supposed to reduce cyberloafing? Some have gone cold turkey and cut off Internet access and E-mails altogether. But most experts believe that cutting off Internet access is throwing the baby out with the virtual bathwater. Along with the wasted time comes improved productivity when the Internet is used as intended. Many studies have been conducted in which employees have indicated that they would sooner give up the phone than E-mail at work.

Some employers have opted for software to monitor employees' surfing activities and in some cases restrict their online activities. Most have adopted acceptable-use policies, and it's reported that 22% of employers have terminated employees because of violations of those policies. Others have restricted Internet access to those employees who require it for their work, limiting nonessential access. (Does every clerk in your mailroom really need surfing capability?)

There are even outsourcing companies that manage oversight for you. But what's really working? And what's the best way to get the employees to resist the call of the Internet and personal instant and E-mail messaging? And which online activities and sites are the most addictive? It's a little of "one from column A and two from column B." Knowing what your employees are doing, and how much time they're spending doing it, will help you find solutions that work for you.

Before you can forge a solution, you need to understand the scope of the problem. Do your homework:

Who has access to the Internet/E-mail and instant messaging at work?

Do you have a workplace acceptable/Internet use policy? What does it say about personal use of the Internet?

What monitoring practices are in place, if any, that check if employees are using the Internet for personal surfing?

Do you block access to certain popular time-wasting sites, such as job-hunting, investment, cyberdating, gaming, and auction sites?

What do you do when you discover an employee has breached the permitted-use policy?

Are certain personal uses more objectionable to you than others?

Is personal Internet use permitted as long as the employee is otherwise productive?

Do you monitor other electronic communications, such as phone calls?

Do you have the IT ability to block access to certain sites or applications? Are you using the blocking technology? Who decides which sites are blocked and which ones get through?

Do you have the IT ability to monitor which sites are accessed by employees? Are you using the monitoring technology? Who decides what monitoring is used and when it is used? Who's monitoring the monitors?

Would your employees object to restricting their Internet use to work-related surfing? Would clamping down on personal Internet use adversely affect your workplace culture?

Have you conducted efficiency audits? If so, what did they find?

In an upcoming column, I'll review some of the monitoring and blocking technologies and talk to the professionals who use them. We'll also review some of the legal problems with monitoring employee communications. In the meantime, I've given a few examples of favorite time drains at work. What sites and online activities lure you away from productive work? Take our survey. We'll reveal the results here in a few weeks.

Parry Aftab is a cyberspace lawyer, specializing in online privacy and security law. She can be reached at [email protected].

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit the Talk Shop.

To find out more about Parry Aftab, please visit her page on the Listening Post.

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